Originally beer drinking was promoted in Australia as a way of reducing the level of drunkenness induced
by rum consumption. And, obviously if you have beer, you need a pub and in 1796 Australia’s first legal pub,
the Masons Arms, was built by a James Larra, who was deported for stealing a tankard (obviously a real pub
lover). And Larra was French!
Old Australian pubs like The Hero of Waterloo in Sydney are similar to their British (often Scottish) ancestors.
But they developed some distinctive features as they proliferated in the 19th century. In newly-colonised areas
such as the goldfields they were often the first structure to be built and acted as post-office, restaurant,
general store etc. They also offered accommodation which is why they are often called ‘hotels’. Hence, they
tend to be much bigger than British pubs.
In early colonial Australia, licensing laws were liberal but towards the end of the 19th century,
conservative Christian temperance leagues lobbied for the restriction of alcohol sales. The First World
War gave a big boost to the ‘wowsers’. In February 1916 soldiers rioted and invaded local pubs, drinking
them dry and (really shocking) refusing to pay! As a result pubs had to shut at six o’ clock in most states.
As with so many ‘temporary’ measures (income tax is a good example) this became permanent.
As so often, the law had the opposite effect of its intent. Men would rush out of the workplace and
consume as much as possible between ‘knock-off’ time and closing-time. This ritual became known as
the “six o’ clock swill” and drunkenness was rife. Apart from being big, pubs built during this period have
enormous bar areas to allow easy access and are often tiled so they could be hosed down and cleaned
quickly. Also, sports and working men’s clubs were exempt and many bought alcohol from off-licences and
drank at home. Early closing had no significant effect on reducing alcohol consumption. And yet the law was
not changed for forty to fifty years (depending on the state)…
Possibly the most striking aspect of Australian pub culture was the strict sexual segregation. Up until the
1970’s women were not allowed to drink in the Public Bar and although there was usually a ‘Ladies Lounge’
women were only admitted if accompanied by men and often were not allowed to buy drinks. Feminists
challenged this and when refused service in the Hotel Manly in 1973 (they were told there were not enough
toilets for women!) chained themselves to the railing that ran round the bar. The negative publicity that
ensued meant that this convention disappeared within a few years. Ironically, pubs provided an important
source of income for many women. Being widowed or deserted was very common in 19th-century Australia
and pub-keeping provided jobs not only for widows and deserted wives, but also for many female ex-convicts.
Australians love to bet and gambling has been always been part of pub culture although this was illegal until
relatively recently. So, one thing you find in Australian pubs that you do not in Britain is a room full of coin
Despite their differences, like their British equivalents, Australian pubs are a place to meet friends, share
news and stories and, of course, eat and drink. Anyway, it is a very sunny evening here and I am off to the
Nelson Hotel for a few schooners…